“We Patch Anything”: WPA Sewing Rooms
December 11, 2015 8:18 AM   Subscribe

During the Depression, the Works Project Administration put American men to work on large-scale, highly-visible undertakings, like dam building and highway construction. Women, too, needed work, and some of them found it through WPA Sewing Rooms, where they earned wages for making clothing for low-income Americans.

In 1935, Ellen S. Woodward, WPA Assistant Administrator in charge of the Division of Women’s and Professional Projects, spoke about women's role in the WPA, and more specifically, the purpose and achievements of these nationwide sewing rooms:
In our work with women, we have a two-fold objective; first, to employ these women on projects according to their skills, and second, to train and retrain them so that through new or increased skills they can earn a livelihood in private employment or run better homes.

More than 65% of all the women in this program are at work in sewing rooms, making garments, quilts and other necessary articles for local needy people. The things they produce constitute substantial savings in local Community Chest and other relief budgets, while they themselves are becoming better seamstresses, designers, cutters. They also are trained one hour each day in a wide range of other household arts.

... These are some of the actual, tangible things which will endure long after the misunderstanding of this program, and we hope, the need for it, have disappeared. The value of this contribution to our well-being is incalculable in dollars and cents.
The U.S. government provided the machines; local communities, coverage of building-related expenses. The women made the garments. Photos from women's training work centers in Kentucky captured these hands at work. (United in purpose, but divided by color: African-American women had their own rooms, as documented in the photos from Kentucky.) In Fort Worth, Texas, the WPA's sewing program was affectionately referred to as "We Patch Anything": "They repaired used clothing and created new garments, for which each woman was responsible from beginning to end. Each item included a WPA label with the inscription “Not to be sold.” The finished items were sent to the surplus commodities depot to be distributed to needy individuals—sometimes the women themselves—on the order of city and county welfare workers."

The ghosts of the sewing room program emerge now and then, whether in photographs of buildings formerly used for the purpose, or in family histories:
I had one sweat shirt that Mom immediately picked it up and said "this is the Dresden plate pattern, it is the very first quilt pattern I learned to make during the Depression." And she went on to tell about the WPA programs and how that was where she learned to quilt as a child. ... Now when I see people admiring that pattern on one of my shirts, I tell them the story about WPA and how Mom and her younger sister both learned that Dresden plate as their very first quilt pattern and have kept on to quilting for almost 80 years.
In memory of a program that kept Americans warm, employed, and connected to one another, stitch by stitch.
posted by MonkeyToes (6 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, sometimes I think the WPA programs were this country's finest hour.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:26 AM on December 11, 2015 [25 favorites]

Honestly, sometimes I think the WPA programs were this country's finest hour.

I love the occasional WPA mural glorifying labor. It's like "holy crap! Tax dollars paid for this image of the Workers triumphing over the Bosses and their Screws!"

I also enjoy the occasional sidewalk inset telling me that the sidewalk was built by the WPA.

I had never heard about this aspect of the program, though. Thanks!
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:48 AM on December 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

The WPA years were also the only time in which this country sponsored the arts in any capacity. I'll grant you that I've got a bit of a bias, but the story behind the world premiere of The Cradle Will Rock is one of my all-time favorite theater stories ever. A company I've worked with also re-staged some of the Living Newspaper works - I've only gotten to see their staging of "Power," and it was amazing. Hell, people were walking out of there saying "damn, I actually finally understand the utility companies for the first time in my life!" Tim Robbins' movie Cradle Will Rock stages the story behind that play, and also dramatizes the showdown between Diego Rivera and Nelson Rockefeller, over the Rivera mural Man At The Crossroads, which I still think should be up in Rockefeller Center but isn't. The movie also gives a glance at how the more conservative folks in the country reacted to the WPA stuff, and foreshadows why this kind of thing isn't in this country any more (hint: people here have been paranoid about communism and socialism for a looooooooooooooong time).

The book America Eats! is also cool - it's a contemporary book that's part anthology, part analysis, reviving some of the manuscripts from a never-published WPA anthology of food writing. The original book was supposed to be a collection of writing from all over about food trends and customs from across the country, but the book never got published. The contemporary book prints some of those writings, but the editor/author also visits some of the sites from those writings in the modern day and traces the difference. Technically the WPA project was created to give people work, but historically and culturally it's a goldmine, a fantastic snapshot of daily life and American and customs from the 1930's.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:16 AM on December 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

Unfortunately, jobless women have no such opportunities today--our plutocratic congressmen and women abandoned them years ago, more interested in campaign contributions from the well-to-do than in helping those in need.

Props to the writer for not pulling punches. This is great.
posted by xedrik at 12:28 PM on December 11, 2015

> The WPA years were also the only time in which this country sponsored the arts in any capacity.

That's not entirely true, though — during the Cold War the CIA was a big backer of Abstract Expressionism...
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:55 PM on December 11, 2015

the living new deal also came up previously last year :)

The WPA years were also the only time in which this country sponsored the arts in any capacity.

or recorded and preserved them, altho for some reason i thought the american folkways recordings was sponsored by the WPA; it wasn't but john lomax was!
posted by kliuless at 4:59 PM on December 11, 2015

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